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In Locker Rooms, a Fine Line Between Hazing and Bullying

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Copyright 2013 The Palm Beach Newspapers, Inc.
All Rights Reserved

Palm Beach Post (Florida)
November 3, 2013 Sunday
FINAL EDITION
SPORTS; Pg. 1C
1154 words
OVER THE LINE?;
In locker rooms, fine line exists between hazing and bullying.
By Hal Habib Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
DAVIE

New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul thought he'd have some fun at training camp when he threw cornerback Prince Amukamara into a tub filled with ice water.

That's when things got hot.

Not only was Amukamara unamused as he emerged and was taunted by a teammate, but video of the incident was posted on social media by punter Steve Weatherford.

The organization's response sent mixed signals. Co-owner John Mara said the most important thing was that no one was hurt. He said the club takes bullying seriously and actively supports anti-bullying campaigns.

On the other hand, Mara, coach Tom Coughlin and players spent considerable time focusing not on the act, which Mara labeled "boys being boys," but that it was shared with the public. Describing it as a "prank," Pierre-Paul said at the time 14 1/2 months ago, "It goes on in every locker room. Unfortunately, the video got leaked."

Hazing takes toll

Today, questions of the same nature are being asked regarding Dolphins training camp, where a prank on Jonathan Martin pushed the offensive tackle over the edge, causing him to leave the team last week. Martin, a second-round pick from Stanford last year, hasn't publicly commented since. It's unknown if or when he'll return.

Unless you were in the cafeteria when Martin snapped, unless you witnessed teammates calling Martin a "big weirdo" and knew how that affected him, it would be jumping to conclusions to say which side took things too far. At what point does hazing become bullying?

In six seasons as a Dolphin, former receiver Oronde Gadsden spent enough time in the locker room to know the culture.

"You've got to have rhinoceros-type skin," Gadsden said. "You have to have the thickest skin ever to be in a locker room with 60 other guys day in, day out. ... Barring jail, I don't know a tougher place to be for six months of your life."

Players break down

There's no objective way to measure whether Dolphins training camp at Nova Southeastern University is any more or less hospitable than any other NFL practice facility. But this isn't the first time a player has bolted there.

In the summer of 2005, defensive tackle Manny Wright famously broke down in tears after being ripped by coach Nick Saban on the field for not being in shape. Initially excused from camp, Wright returned to the Dolphins that season, appearing in three games before leaving again during 2006 camp and attributing it to depression and a poor relationship with Saban.

Wright, who had been chosen in the fifth round of the 2005 supplemental draft, signed with the Giants as a free agent in 2007, playing a backup role that nevertheless earned him a Super Bowl ring.

Today, Martin reportedly is seeking counseling while excused for what the team alternately labeled a "non football injury" and an "illness," which could be construed as putting the onus on Martin for angrily reacting when teammates got up from the lunch table when Martin was the last to sit.

"I can say without question that we emphasize a culture of team-first accountability and respect for one another," coach Joe Philbin said. "Any behavior that deviates from that is inconsistent with the values of our organization."

Rookie hazing has long been a staple of NFL camps. Once again this summer, rookies' hair was either chopped, dyed or both. Veterans designated a day in which rookies were told to constantly wear their helmets or risk having their eyebrows shaved.

"It's a gladiator type of sport," Gadsden said. "Where do you draw the line?"

And is there even a "one size fits all" line to be drawn?

"You know the background of players, but you don't know where they're coming from or what they've been through all their life, so it's tough," Gadsden said. "The weakest link can actually be the strongest link if you try him in the right way. The quietest guy sits in the corner every day, but if you push the wrong button, he will mess you up."

The Dolphins' offensive line had come under fire for failing to protect Ryan Tannehill from pass rushers. Much of the blame zeroed in on the starting tackles, Martin and Tyson Clabo. That led to the Dolphins trading for Baltimore veteran tackle Bryant McKinnie, who immediately was named the starting left tackle, forcing Martin to switch to right tackle and pushing Clabo to the bench -- at least until Martin left.

Issue in spotlight

The NFL has taken public-service stands against bullying. One program, called "Be In The Know About Bullying," is supported by several players, including former Ravens and Dolphins linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo and Ravens tackle Michael Oher, subject of the film "The Blind Side."

Giants defensive end Justin Tuck's R.U.S.H. for Literacy Foundation, which encourages success through literacy, enabled him to meet a student from Brooklyn who entered the group's essay contest.

The boy had written that he was bullied because he was a dedicated student. Tuck was touched because he had endured similar trouble as a youngster.

Although much light has been shed on bullying in recent years, many likely associate the act with grade school or the streets. The notion that it might occur in NFL locker rooms, among millionaires, probably comes as a surprise.

I Will Not Bully, a national anti-bullying organization, is monitoring the Martin case. Executive director Tamicia Currie wonders if NFL players would be willing to report such concerns.

"If I report I've been bullied, most people are going to be sympathetic," Currie said. "Imagine you are an offensive tackle playing in the NFL. How are they going to view him? Publicly they may hold his hand, but privately scrutinize him."

It goes back to Gadsden's thick-skin prerequisite.

"There ain't no estrogen over there on Southwest 30th Street," Gadsden said of the Dolphins' complex. "There ain't none in any locker room."

Bullying experts say a joke is a joke only if both sides think it's funny. One local expert theorized that two or three players may have begun by picking on Martin and others joined in or chose to look the other way. At such times, the expert said, it's up to leadership to step in. Gadsden said that when he played, it was clear Dan Marino and Jason Taylor fit that role.

"We had a lot of veteran leadership," Gadsden said. "I don't think they have that now. If you look at the top four teams now in the NFL, you know who the leaders are on the team. The Broncos, you know it's Peyton Manning. The Saints, Drew Brees. You look at the Dolphins, it'd be like, 'Who are the leaders?' I don't know."

In the case of the Giants' Prince Amukamara, even though someone was willing to record the incident, no one was willing to stop it. Pierre-Paul said he would never want to hurt Amukamara, that the Giants are "all family" and the story was blown out of proportion.

At least in this instance, there is a hint of a happy ending. Amukamara and Pierre-Paul are still teammates, starting for the Giants.

hhabib@pbpost.com Twitter: @gunnerhal

November 3, 2013

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